Blake Page, a senior at West Point, has announced he will leave the military academy to protest what he says is unconstitutional proselytizing by officers and discrimination against non-religious cadets.
Updated Dec. 5, 2:25 p.m. ET: Cadet Blake Page has learned from his superiors at West Point that he will be given an honorable discharge and not be required to pay "recoupment" costs for three and a half years at the military academy. He told NBC News that when out-processing is finished, he will move to Minnesota and "continue the work I've started in whatever way I can."
Original Post: A West Point cadet publicly announced his decision to quit the prestigious military academy just months before graduating to protest what he sees as the illegal infusion of military procedures and events with fundamentalist Christian proselytizing.
To call attention to his move, senior Blake Page wrote a scathing commentary on West Point, published Monday in the Huffington Post.
"Countless officers here and throughout the military are guilty of blatantly violating the oaths they swore to defend the Constitution," wrote Page, who was slated to graduate in May. "These men and women are criminals, complicit in light of day defiance of the Uniform Code of Military Justice through unconstitutional proselytism, discrimination against the non-religious and establishing formal policies to reward, encourage and even at times require sectarian religious participation."
A public affairs officer at West Point told NBC News he was seeking a response to Page's commentary and his resignation, but had not arranged an interview or responded to the cadet's assertions by the time of publication.
Page's move was an unusual one, and it could come with a big price tag for the 25-year-old who served in the Army prior to enrolling. He could be required to pay the Army some $200,000-$300,000 in "recoupment" costs for his time at West Point.
"It's a very unusual move," said Elizabeth Hillman, professor of law at University of California Hastings College who specializes in military law. She said that while many cadets struggle with issues of conscience, few leave as a result.
"Cadets will tell you it’s very hard to leave," she said. "It’s much harder to leave than to stay."
"This kid just torched his career in the Army, and his degree at West Point," said Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for total separation of church and state. He likens Page’s move to those of Rosa Parks in the civil rights movement and monks who light themselves on fire to protest Chinese policies in Tibet. "People should recognize courage when they see it."
While at West Point, Page established a chapter of the Secular Students Alliance to support non-religious cadets at the institution. He has argued against prayer being included in mandatory events. He says he has faced persistent discrimination as a known atheist and has been told by his superiors that he will never be a good leader until he "fills the hole in his heart."
His complaints have won some concessions, with the backing of the non-profit Military Religious Freedom Foundation — which provides legal aid and a channel to the media — and the support of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.
But Page says that even sympathetic military superiors are reluctant to take action on religious issue because of the sensitivity, and says that applications to leave campus on routine "rest and relaxation" outings were systematically denied him and his fellow secularists.
"It’s very clear that there is a considerable level of distaste for atheists here," he said.
When he informed superiors of his plan to leave West Point, about a month ago, Page says generals appealed to him to work through official channels to bring change at the academy.
"My motivation for resigning was first because I didn’t want to be part of it, but also to motivate other people to stand up and be counted. Without something bold that gets attention, I don’t see a way to inspire anybody to stand up and say 'I’m tired of this'," Page told NBC News. "And talking isn’t working, it hasn’t been working. I wanted to do something more."
Long-held traditions are changing at West Point, as elsewhere in the military. Last week West Point held the first same-sex wedding in its chapel.
Page has received a ream of comments congratulating and thanking him for the message he sent with his departure.
But he also got plenty of blow-back from other soldiers.
One comment posted to his Facebook page by a fellow soldier lambasted him for "(doing his best) to drag (West Point) through the mud."
"I wish you could just pack your bags, slink away, and fade into oblivion, but I guess that's not dramatic enough," the post said.
Page said he is planning to write a book about his experiences.
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